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Mental health and police reform — where’s the investment in innovation?

Law enforcement officers work the scene on 500 South in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 25, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Both the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-led Senate released their respective visions of police reform in June. Legislative efforts appear to have stalled for now, at least through the November election. This pause provides time to address a gaping hole in both proposals.

While both measures would provide more funding for data collection, more training and body cameras, and while the Democrat bill seeks additional federal bans on certain chokeholds and modification to qualified immunity policies, neither bill includes language related to officer mental and behavioral health.

That’s a problem if you’re concerned with the rising tensions between police and the communities they serve in much of the country. This oversight is a mistake and one that will lead to tragic consequences, for officers and citizens alike.

Officer mental health is not just a problem for police departments, it’s also an issue for the general public and its relationship with law enforcement. For instance, work by Dr. John Violanti and his colleagues suggests that the decision-making process of officers who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is significantly impacted, resulting in higher threat levels and poorer decision making. Given the authority entrusted to law enforcement personnel, officers’ mental health struggles could lead to more negative interactions between the police and communities nationwide.

The fact that both bills omit any mention of officer mental health or issues related to PTSD suggests this issue will continue to languish towards the bottom of public policy priorities.

First responders know that risk is an inherent part of their job. While some of the physical risks are well known, long-term psychological and behavioral problems can have a devastating impact as well. There is evidence that first responders, including police, have worse behavioral and mental health outcomes than the general public, often dealing with heightened levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse as a result of their work in the field. Public safety personnel also suffer from higher rates of PTSD and suicide risks, with some estimates that as many as 19% of officers nationwide struggle from these conditions. With over 665,000 sworn officers in the U.S., these numbers should ring alarm bells for those concerned with officer safety and the general public.

We know that mental health for first responders can be impacted by “organizational engagement, stigma and social environments.” Congress itself has recognized this issue in the recent past, passing the Law Enforcement Health and Wellness Act of 2017, a bill which directed the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to develop “educational resources” and “pilot programs” to monitor and improve the mental health of law enforcement officers. That bill didn’t solve the problem. In FY2020, a paltry $4.3 million was allocated for these efforts.

Furthermore, even fewer funds have been devoted to how technology could alleviate this issue at the federal level. The National Institute of Mental Health has recognized that technology can play a role in treating mental health issues. In 2015, the Rand Corporation, with support for the Department of Justice, published a report calling for more research, development, testing and evaluation related to officer health, particularly mental health monitoring and support. Despite these calls, minimal financial investment has been made to connect such solutions with law enforcement.

A keyword search of the 22,667 projects funded by federal agencies from FY2016-FY2020 reveals that none addressed the mental and behavioral health of first responders. Similar searches through the government’s online spending portal reveal little to no investment in this area over this same period, outside a spattering of localized substance abuse and mental health programs for first responders.

Given what we know about law enforcement’s shortcomings in this area, one wonders why so little has actually been invested by the federal government to address it. The fact that it goes unspoken in the most recent legislative proposals does not bode well for it becoming a point of focus in the near future.

Any national police reform measures bringing significant changes will use billions of dollars in federal resources. The focus of both parties on providing funding for enhanced training for officers that are responding to individuals suffering from mental and behavioral health issues is laudable. However, consideration should be given to helping those officers tasked with so much responsibility, whose momentary actions can have drastic national consequences, overcome their own personal struggles.

Colby Humphrey is the chief intelligence officer for Make Safe Tech, Inc., a 501(c)(3) dedicated to advancing products and technologies for first responders and our armed forces. He has a master’s in public administration from Texas A&M University and is currently a graduate student at the University of Texas.